A Community Leader

“Our Outstanding Organizations”

June Kay Campbell, Inez Kay White, Dora Otey, Elizabeth Otey Constant, Willie Otey Kay, Mildred Otey Taylor, Chloe Otey Jervay Laws, and other members attend a Gay Matrons or Links meeting, ca. 1960–1965. Courtesy of Ms. Wanda Kay
June Kay Campbell, Inez Kay White, Dora Otey, Elizabeth Otey Constant, Willie Otey Kay, Mildred Otey Taylor, Chloe Otey Jervay Laws, and other members attend a Gay Matrons or Links meeting, ca. 1960–1965.
Courtesy of Ms. Wanda Kay.

Willie Kay used the proceeds of her business to strengthen Raleigh’s African American community. Links, Shaw University, Gay Matrons, Saint Augustine’s College (now University), National Association of College Women: these were just some of the civic and educational organizations that she supported during her lifetime.

A charter member of the Raleigh chapter of Links, a group of black women who raised money for education and charity, Kay remained active in the group throughout her life, as did her sisters. She also patronized high-profile social functions like the Alpha Kappa Alpha Debutante Ball, Blue Revue, and Jabberwock.

Glove bag, ca. 1960–1965. Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth C. Lewis
Glove bag, ca. 1960–1965.
Courtesy of Mrs. Elizabeth C. Lewis.

A Genteel Gift

The Otey sisters participated in Links, an African American women’s civic organization. Elizabeth Otey Constant made glove bags like this one for fellow members.

 

 

 

Saint Ambrose’s congregation formed in 1868, shortly after the end of slavery. The board-and-batten wood-frame structure pictured here was constructed in 1879 and moved in 1900 from its original location on Lane Street to the corner of Cabarrus and Wilmington Streets. The congregation moved again in 1965 to a new building in the Rochester Heights neighborhood. Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina
Saint Ambrose’s congregation formed in 1868, shortly after the end of slavery. The board-and-batten wood-frame structure pictured here was constructed in 1868 and moved in 1900 from its original location on Lane and Dawson Streets to the corner of Cabarrus and Wilmington Streets. The congregation moved again in 1965 to a new building in the Rochester Heights neighborhood.
Courtesy of the State Archives of North Carolina.

Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church

Throughout her life, Willie Kay found a spiritual home at Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church in Raleigh. The congregation was an extension of her family, and her family made up a significant proportion of the membership. She was confirmed there, married there, and participated as an active member for decades.

 

 

“I remembered just about everything about the church from the time I was about five years old.”

—Willie Otey Kay

 

 

These red Episcopal vestments symbolize the fire of the Holy Spirit. Saint Ambrose clergy continue to wear and use them on Pentecost, a holiday that commemorates the Holy Spirit’s descent unto Christ’s disciples. The Otey sisters likely made the vestments to celebrate the new church building, which opened in 1965. The embellishments adorn the rear of the garment because at that time the congregation used an east-facing altar, and the priest would perform the Eucharist with his back to the congregation.

East-facing chasuble and stole, Venetian brocade, embellished with embroidered trefoil dove descendant and Christogram, ca. 1965. Made by Willie Otey Kay and Mildred Otey Taylor for Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church.
East-facing chasuble and stole, Venetian brocade, embellished with embroidered trefoil dove descendant and Christogram, ca. 1965. Made by Willie Otey Kay and Mildred Otey Taylor for Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church.
Courtesy of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church.
Burse and veil, Venetian brocade, embellished with embroidered doves descendant, ca. 1965. Made by Willie Otey Kay and Mildred Otey Taylor for Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church. Courtesy of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church
Burse and veil, Venetian brocade, embellished with embroidered doves descendant, ca. 1965. Made by Willie Otey Kay and Mildred Otey Taylor for Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church.
Courtesy of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church.
The Reverend Robert Jemonde Taylor, who became rector of Saint Ambrose in 2012, wears the chasuble and stole during worship. Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History
The Reverend Robert Jemonde Taylor, who became rector of Saint Ambrose in 2012, wears the chasuble and stole during worship.
Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

After Willie Otey Kay’s death, her children dedicated this stained-glass window to her memory. Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History
After Willie Otey Kay’s death, her children dedicated this stained-glass window to her memory.
Courtesy of the North Carolina Museum of History.

Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church, Easter Sunday (April 14, 1963). Courtesy of Saint Ambrose Episcopal Church

Life magazine showcased Charlotte debutantes—including one young woman wearing a Kay gown—in this summer 1951 issue.
Life magazine showcased Charlotte debutantes—including one young woman wearing a Kay gown—in this summer 1951 issue.
Museum Collection.

 

Taking It All In

Willie Kay received widespread acclaim during her lifetime. McCall’s magazine did a story on her work in 1935, and in 1951 Life magazine featured one of Kay’s debutante gowns on its cover. Local publications also highlighted her creations, and the publicity led to even more recognition and renown.

Despite her growing status, Kay maintained her signature humility. She carried on her business for nearly six decades, sending all five of her children to college with the proceeds, and sewing well into her 90s.

 

 

 

 

 

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